Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Short History of Remploy

Remploy was set up under the 1944 Disabled Persons Employment Act by Ernest Bevin, who was then minister of labour; to become yet another plank in Welfare State formed by the Atlee government in 1945.

After the Second World War, Clement Attlee's Labour government was not about to repeat the pitiful scenes 30 years earlier of limbless soldiers playing mouth-organs on the streets. 
"One of the finest Acts of Parliament ever put on the statute book is to see that these people are not left like flotsam and jetsam on the beach of society, but are put somewhere where they can be happy and of use to the community," said then Minister of Labour, George Isaacs, on opening the first factory.
So, Remploy was formally founded in April 1945. Its first factory opened in Bridgend, South Wales, in 1946. It made violins and furniture and many of the workers were disabled miners.
'Remploy' was an early brand name which was originally registered by the Ex-Services Employment Corporation.

Derived from 're-employ', the name was adopted by Remploy in 1946. Until then it was called the Disabled Persons Employment Corporation.

At its height Remploy had around 100 factories spread across England, Scotland and Wales, employing over 10,000 disabled workers. The factories produced and manufactured goods and services ranging from, in the early days, violin making and book binding through to furniture making; Remploy workers were skilled covering a wide spectrum of sectors from textiles to motor components.

It was Tory Minister Michael Portillo who kick-started Remploy's decline, when in 1994 he ended a scheme guaranteeing the factories' priority for government contracts. This imposed competitive tendering on the company.

By 1995 Peter Thurnham, a then Tory MP who crossed the floor to the LibDems in 1996, wrote a paper calling for Remploy to be taken under the private sector umbrella, where he felt it would be more successful.

Down the years the Trade Union Consortium has lobbied successive governments complaining about the quality and commitment of the people running Remploy.

Here is an  example of a squandered opportunity:
 A few years ago Mike Eavis (the Glastonbury Festival site owner) wanted to source the t-shirts locally. In collaboration with the trade unions, he offered one of Remploy's Cornwall sites a £1 million-pound contract. Remploy prevaricated about it for a long time. When challenged, a Remploy board member complained about the £50,000 set-up costs!
In late 1999 Remploy announced it was going to merge a number of its factories and close others. Anything up to 20 sites were to be affected. On a cold February afternoon around 60 Remploy workers and trade union activists from around the country assembled outside Parliament and held a 24-hour vigil.

Though few in number we made our presence felt. MP after MP came out to us to give support and solidarity to our cause. John Snow, Channel 4 newscaster, stopped and spoke with us for half-an-hour. Within a few days of the protest a moratorium was placed on the closures - Remploy was safe for the time being.

From January 2006, each Remploy factory has had the right to a minimum of one reserved public contract. Despite this the company did very little to seriously take advantage of this resource.

And, as a consequence the factories continued on a downward trajectory until in May 2007 the company announced a tranche of factory mergers and closures. This galvanised the unions into action. Demonstrations and rallies were organised up and down the Britain. Every major city with a Remploy site held some kind of action. I remember going to Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Poole, Swansea, Cardiff, Glasgow, Stirling, Leatherhead, and of course London.
But, despite the Remploy Crusade, which saw a team of activists travelling by coach to every site on the closure list from Inverness down to Cornwall, 2008 saw 30 factories shutting down throwing 2,500 disabled people out of work - over three years after the event around 85% of those who accepted the voluntary redundancy are still without jobs.  

Three years on, and with the same indifferent people running the company into the ground, Liz Sayce of Radar, a disability charity with a vested interest in seeing Remploy factories close, submitted the finding of her government commissioned review of employment support for disabled people: 'Getting in, staying in and getting on'.

Her findings are that Remploy factories are not an efficient way to engage disabled people in the workplace. She believes mainstream employment is the only solution to employing disabled people; and, that the subsidy currently enjoyed by Remploy factories should not be renewed. Any factories that cannot survive without a subsidy should either close down or be taken over as a co-operative venture or social enterprise. Obviously, it is pointless trying to start up either a co-op or social enterprise if there is no work on the books.

On the positive side Sayce calls for monies saved from Remploy and residential training courses to be ploughed into Access to Work, the one area she supports. The problem is that the government isn't committed to getting disabled people into work; no, it is committed to reducing its benefits' bill, and pushing disabled people off IB and ESA is their goal. There is no indication that the government is going to increase the A2W budget; indeed, there are signs that they may well add to a growing list of items no longer available to people through A2W.

Up to the present day. Once more Remploy activists are being called to arms. Though some of us haven't recovered from the last battle, it's hard to get over the emotional trauma of seeing workplaces close down as comrades stand by, many in tears feeling that their right to work has been snatched from them along with their dignity; they look into a dark and uncertain future.

But, we will fight on, because as Tony Woodley put it all those years ago..."if we fight we may not always win - but if we don't fight, we will surely lose."

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